On reading

Earlier this week, I talked to one of my students, who shocked and appalled me by trying to argue that he could be a good writer without reading widely and further, that creative nonfiction sux.

WTF?! I’ll say it again. WTF?! And what’s more…NO.

Of course I’m slightly overstating his remarks for dramatic purposes. But the sentiment was there. I told him that I’d throw down on the first point; he’s wrong. Unequivocally. And that on the second point, he needs to be reading more, and widely. (Hee.) There’s amazing creative nonfiction out there, and to express an opinion like that suggests that he’s not reading the right stuff (or any stuff at all?).

Look. There’s a direct correlation between a writer’s book consumption and skill level, period. And with regards to nonfiction…this is how we challenge ourselves to think critically and to enrich our understanding of issues that affect humanity.

I’m reminded of George Lucas, who on an episode of Fresh Air, talked about how people are smarter now than ever before. Lucas has apparently not read Montaigne or Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. People are not smarter today. If anything, we’re less smart. Science has advanced immeasurably, but humanity’s interrogative process has declined. Why shouldn’t it? We can get the answer to virtually any question in the time it takes to type the topic into a search engine. Smart does not equal access to knowledge. Smart is a process.

I recapped my conversation with the student for a colleague and he dismissed it instantly. “Sounds young. And immature.”

There’s a cure for that.


3 responses to “On reading

  1. Hey,

    I agree with the jist of your words. Except I think it is simplistic to say that people are less intelligent than they were in the past. In your example, with the french guy, I think it is very likely that most of the population of France in the sixteenth century were in poverty, and most likely the least intelligent kind. Surely the development of cultural diversity and the general increase of well being across people, will have some effect. Montaigne was an aristocrat and it is likely that he was a member of a small group of ‘intelligent’ people, especially compared to the ‘intelligence’ of people today.

    A more complex environment, greater intellectual diversity, and a larger community of smart people, must mean that we live in the most sophisticated age to date.


    Says that we are getting higher IQs with each day. But that is probably overly simplistic.

  2. Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

    Of course you’re right in pointing out that since Montaigne’s time, there is exponentially greater access to public education, resulting in a better-educated populous (I’m still not sure about base-level intelligence; there are many people who lack formal education who are incredibly smart, and many who hold multiple degrees but don’t seem equipped with analytical skills…though that’s another topic).

    Maybe my mistake was use of the word “smart.” What I am trying to get at is the decline of the interrogative process. I think that we have lost (or are losing) the drive to find answers to questions through direct personal experience of the world, which is basically the root of the scientific method. We observe something, wonder why that is, and turn to Google, as opposed to delving deeper through our own substantive reading or through an informal process of experimentation or exploration. But we’ve argued about real vs. virtual experience before.

    Anyhoo. Mine seems to be a minority opinion. Check out this analysis of a recent debate on this very topic that sprang up in The Atlantic: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1499/google-does-it-make-us-stupid-experts-stakeholders-mostly-say-no. You and the experts are simpatico on this one!

  3. Maybe your on to something as far as the decline of an interrogatory method. Could it be that as time goes on people begin to take more things as given? I suppose this was always true, a sort of sleepwalking, blindly taking common sense as the only truth. In the past it was possible to know an entire cannon of thought. An independent thinker could take in their whole tradition and analyze it. Today, it would be impossible to tackle the entire breadth of human knowledge. One can only really explore a few fields of knowledge. Which supports your original point; To read broadly offers perspective, and the past can show us how knowledge has changed, with that in mind a healthy skepticism can bring things together in proper proportion.

    I realized that I was being somewhat pedantic. Maybe it was better taken rhetorically.

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